Only a story gathered from the hills
And the wind crying of forgotten days,
A story that shall whisper, “All things change-
For friends do grow indifferent, and loves
Die like a dream at morning: bitterness
Is the sure heritage of all men born…
In that this post presents a melancholy young poet, this is a sadder blog than many – and less of a sermon than many of my posts too, I hope.
Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s small collection of poetry, A Spring Harvest (which forms a pivotal sequence at the end of the Tolkein biopic) suggests that GBS was lonely, frustrated, but aware of the power of language to conjure emotion and fantasy. A clever depiction of a friend, a tentative exploration of sexuality before WWI, and love and religion and class, and… and… and a lens for the film to show the ways in which some people can delight and fascinate: almost, it seems, an explanation of the ways in which the writer of Lord of the Rings (and so much more) learned to charm. A film of the student Tolkien learning Icelandic would have been less likely to win over an audience (I would have gone), or to explain how a boy with an unhappy childhood grew and blossomed into such a creative influence in C20th literature.
Just like his poem of the Downs – not Uffington although for me it evokes those memories, and I can hear Chesterton’s poem in Bache Smith’s – the young man is himself a track half lost in the green hills. It is a sad shame – a tragedy, a waste, a horror – that Geoffrey Bache Smith did not live and grow: maybe he might have blossomed into a greater poet, or a thoughtful adult scholar, or whatever. These poems, and a footnote in the young adult life of a great writer, are what we have left : a voice heard once, and heard no more, as GBS himself suggests in a Commemoration poem. For us Only a Story is hardly a story at all, and we pass on.
This sense of sic transit, of the fragility of life and fame and love runs through so many of his poems, made all the more poignant by his death in 1916. And here we are, not at war (despite the rhetoric) but in trouble in a world where sickness and greed and neglect and politics have combined to bring about a major crisis, the aftermath of which I doubt I shall live to see wholly resolved, where the call to compassion has to be repeated over and again. We look daily at death as though numbers are all we can make of tragedy. Media vita in morte sumus. It is therefore a bittersweet thing to look at these poems – I first read them in the cellars of the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian, but now find them online – and wonder about all the missed opportunities and times of sadness that GBS explores. Here, in his poem The Last Meeting, he preceded a very similar idea from Yeats, and tells us something that Oxford was imbued with for me as an undergraduate: that many things fade, but that some are more than transitory, loves that shall break the teeth of Time:
We who are young, and have caught the splendour oflife,
Hunting it down the forested ways of the world,
Do we not wear our hearts like a banner unfurled
(Crowned with a chaplet of love, shod with the sandals of strife)?
Now not a lustre of pain, nor an ocean of tears
Nor pangs of death, nor any other thing
That the old tristful gods on our heads may bring
Can rob us of this one hour in the midst of the years.
The poem I cite at the top of this blog almost stands as a rebuke to Tolkien, suggesting that GBS is writing about love, not the great deeds of history or legend. The one that follows, while still with a melancholy feel, is at least a seasonal celebration
Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung
so here is Geoffrey Bache Smith’s Sonnet:
There is a wind that takes the heart of a man,
A fresh wind in the latter days of spring,
When hate and war and every evil thing
That the wide arches of high Heaven span
Seems dust, and less to be accounted than
The omened touches of a passing wing:
When Destiny, that calls himself a king,
Goes all forgotten for the song of Pan:
For why? Because the twittering of birds
Is the best music that was ever sung,
Because the voice of trees finds better words
Than ever poet from his heartstrings wrung:
Because all wisdom and all gramarye
Are writ in fields, O very plain to see.